Thirteen environmental protesters won a last minute reprieve from jail today, Wednesday, for resisting airport expansion plans that would be a disaster for the climate.
The “Heathrow 13” were convicted of trespass after they peacefully occupied a runway of London’s Heathrow airport in an action called by campaign group Plane Stupid.
District judge Deborah Wright gave them six-week jail sentences suspended for one year plus community service. It means they are unlikely to go to jail—despite being told to expect custodial sentences.
A wide campaign of solidarity had an effect.
A crowd of up to 500 supporters gathered outside Willesden Magistrates Court in north west London this morning. They chanted “no ifs, no buts, no third runway” as the Heathrow 13 went in.
John Stewart of anti-expansion campaign Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise told Socialist Worker there was "jubilation" outside the court.
"There was a roar of approval from the substantial crowd that has remained here all day," he said. "This sentence is a relief for the defendants and a victory for the wider movement."
At the rally, shadow chancellor John McDonnell and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas both pledged to fight the incarceration in parliament if necessary.
McDonnell, whose constituency includes Heathrow, slammed the Tories for breaking a pre-election pledge to rule out a third runway in 2010. He told the crowd, “When the democratic process fails people have no choice but to take direct action—to take to the streets and the runways.”
People whose homes are threatened by Heathrow expansion spoke out, giving the lie to bosses’ claims of wide local backing. Asad Rehman from Friends of the Earth pointed out that 70 percent of aviation emissions are produced by just the richest 15 percent of passengers.
Unemployed Paula told Socialist Worker, “I’m here to show the Heathrow 13 that they are not alone. Democracy is being threatened and we need to make ourselves heard.”
Angela from Grow Heathrow added that airport expansion “shouldn’t be happening—because of climate change, noise pollution and people losing their homes. It means whole villages will be razed.”
The protest was big and colourful, from poetry and singing to people dressed as polar bears. Hundreds stayed through the day as the sentencing dragged on. The outrage was felt far and wide.
Activists in other cities and countries held small actions in solidarity, and #Heathrow13 was the top trending term on Twitter. Messages of support have poured in.
According to the defence, “The last custodial sentence for trespass was in 1932, in Lancashire, for the mass trespass on the moors. Those sent to prison, were subsequently released and pardoned following public demonstration.”
It’s the polluters who are wrecking our climate who should be in jail—not the protesters fighting to stop them.
In a defiant statement before the sentencing, the 13 called for “a groundswell of escalation in the climate movement with more bold, effective and disruptive direct action”.
It concluded, “We must stop climate crimes from taking place. In order to do that, it has become clear that it is necessary for more people to break the law.